The endgame in Karnataka for the H.D. Kumaraswamy government has begun. After the Lok Sabha elections, the rationale for the continuation of this coalition government has collapsed.
Both the Congress and the Janata Dal (Secular) failed to mobilise their voters to support each other’s candidates; couldn’t enthuse the electorate to support them despite being the incumbent government; and more alarmingly, both lost their own core supporters even in their traditional strongholds.
Alarmed by the loss of support, many leaders from both the Congress and the JD(S) publicly expressed their disenchantment with the coalition. In any case, after the humiliating defeat in May, the JD(S) and the Congress coalition was doomed and it was only a question of when the Kumaraswamy government would collapse.
Now, barely six weeks later, the JD(S) and the Congress have both been jolted by the resignation of 16 MLAs, including two Independents. If the Speaker accepts their resignations, Kumaraswamy government will clearly lose its majority in the Legislative Assembly. Further, at least another eight Congress MLAs are expected to resign. Veteran Congress leader from Bengaluru, Roshan Baig, who was suspended, also submitted his resignation to the Speaker Tuesday and now plans to join the BJP. This political crisis appears unsalvageable for the alliance partners.
Speaker’s role in buying time
Under these circumstances, only Karnataka Legislative Assembly Speaker’s political manoeuvring can keep Kumaraswamy in office a little longer. But the incumbent Speaker, K.R. Ramesh Kumar, is not known to be brazenly partisan. Therefore, he is unlikely to disqualify these MLAs despite an official request from the Congress. Since they haven’t defied their party whip or voluntarily left the party, there is no legal basis for the Speaker to disqualify them.
Even then, Ramesh Kumar has procedural avenues to delay accepting the resignations, which he is likely to utilise in order to save the government. He has already insisted that the MLAs meet him in person and demonstrate that they haven’t been enticed or pressurised to resign. He has also said that eight out of the 13 resignation letters are not in proper format. Note that these MLAs had not submitted their resignations to the Speaker in person.
Dissident MLAs are camping outside Bengaluru, reportedly in Mumbai and Goa. Therefore, the Speaker’s insistence on meeting the MLAs in person will buy some time for the Congress and the JD(S) troubleshooters. Moreover, they will have an opportunity to persuade the MLAs if they return to Bengaluru to meet the Speaker. Additionally, now that all the ministers have also resigned, Kumaraswamy can offer cabinet slots to many dissident MLAs and thereby manage the crisis. This may save the government for now but will not stem dissidence in the future; those who have sacrificed their ministerial positions will not stay quiet in the future.
Who is responsible for this crisis?
Regardless of what happens to the Kumaraswamy government, there are three important takeaways from the ongoing political crisis in Karnataka.
First, who do we hold responsible for the ongoing political crisis? The Congress leaders blamed the BJP and even the Governor, who held a long meeting with the dissident MLAs. JD(S) supremo Deve Gowda targeted former chief minister Siddaramaiah for not controlling his flock, particularly his own supporters, some of whom have also resigned. The BJP leaders, ecstatic at the prospect of returning to power, have pointed out the inherent contradictions in the alliance and argued that it was bound to collapse without any external push.
Even if there is some truth in these complaints, they do not explain this political crisis at all. Both the political parties and their leadership seem to have little influence and effective control over their legislators, who probably see themselves more as free agents ready to move to the next party.
The dissident group includes H. Vishwanath, former JD(S) Karnataka unit president, who is reportedly the organiser of this current rebellion. Others who have quit include Ramalinga Reddy, perhaps the most important Congress leader in Bengaluru city, who was upset at not being made a minister; two JD(S) legislators, until now very loyal to Deve Gowda; three MLAs who are close associates of Siddaramaiah; and two Independents who were made ministers only last month. There is no political logic that explains this particular grouping of dissident MLAs. It is noteworthy that they appear determined to pull the government down and aren’t ready to be placated with cabinet berths.
Not driven by loyalty to party or ideology
Second, loyalty, ideological or party-based, no longer influences political behaviour nor guarantees political power. So, the present-day politicians of Karnataka do not hesitate to shift parties in pursuit of political opportunities or if they feel their political future is being undercut. The second reason seems to have motivated some Deve Gowda and Siddaramaiah loyalists to join the dissident camp.
If loyalty to the party, ideology or to a leader isn’t a factor in politics, what then drives political behaviour? Simply the pursuit of ministerial office, which is no longer facilitated or provided by political parties. Each MLA acts as a free agent in search of ministerial office and s/he is emboldened by the fact that the voters are not put off by such brazen display of political ambition. Typically, his/her political base is independent of a political party, which enables him/her to move from one party to the other. His/her political future is secured primarily by the success in securing a cabinet berth. Hence, there is a complete lack of restraint.
Public policy & private profit
Third, the pursuit of ministerial office is for a simple reason: in states like Karnataka, politics is no longer primarily guided by any robust conception of public good. Rather, what determines public policy is largely the private profit an incumbent minister can secure. In recent decades, voters have not penalised those who make public policy sans any substantial notion of public good. Again, such voter indifference with respect to perhaps the most critical democratic issue has emboldened a politician to seek ministerial office at any cost.
For these reasons, aggressive dissidence is likely to be a permanent feature of Karnataka’s electoral politics. So, when the Kumaraswamy government may fall is not important. Why and how it fell may continue to hold important lessons to understand what comes next.
The author is a social historian and political commentator. He teaches History and Humanities at Krea University. Views expressed are personal.
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